The Mire of Death, Lies and Atrocities: Robert Fisk Looks Back at 2004

StoryJanuary 03, 2005
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Veteran Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk says, “Over the past year, there has been evidence enough that our whole project in Iraq is hopelessly flawed, that our Western armies–when they are not torturing prisoners, killing innocents and destroying one of the largest cities in Iraq–are being vanquished by a ferocious guerrilla army, the like of which we have not seen before in the Middle East.” Fisk joins us from Beirut, Lebanon. [includes rush transcript]

In a year-in-review article by veteran Middle east correspondent Robert Fisk in the Independent of London, Fisk begins his piece with a question:

Who said this and when?

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient that the public knows… We are today not far from a disaster.”

Those were the words of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) in The Sunday Times in August, 1920.

“And,” Robert Fisk writes, “every word of it is true today.”

We turn now to Robert Fisk to look back on 2004 from Iraq to Palestine and beyond.

  • Robert Fisk, correspondent for The Independent

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We now turn to Robert Fisk to look back on 2004, from Iraq to Israel, to Palestine and beyond. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert Fisk.

ROBERT FISK: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have been doing some reflection, as you also write a book. You can talk about your observations of where we stand today?

ROBERT FISK: Well, I think that the whole project in Iraq is finished. We are not being told by Mr. Blair in my case and Bush in yours that this is the case, and perhaps through their own misjudgment or their own fantasies, they don’t even accept this themselves. But the American project for democracy or whatever its real purposes were, for oil, economic expansion, Middle East fit for Israel, whatever it may have been, that project is finished. It is hopeless. It cannot succeed. The insurgency in Iraq is so great now that American troops, however enormous their technology, cannot control it. The Iraqi so-called ministers, and I include Iyad Allawi, the so-called interim prime minister, who was of course appointed by the Americans as a former C.I.A. asset, they behave like statesmen when they tour the world or turn up in Washington, but in Baghdad they’re not even safe inside their little Green Zone. They’re not even the Mayor of Baghdad, they have less power than the town clerk. So, we have reached a stage now where insurgents control much of the country. The only safe part of Iraq is Kurdistan in the north, which is effectively an autonomous region, outside of the control anyway of the Iraqi government. And the elections, which are coming up, appear doomed because already we’re hearing that if the Sunnis won’t take part, the Americans are trying to persuade the unelected government to appoint Sunni Muslims to make up for the voters who didn’t vote. This is not an election, this is a charade. And what has happened is that the alienation of the Iraqis as a people from the West has been brought about by lunatic policies by the State Department and by the Pentagon, I’m afraid by the behavior of American troops and a lesser expect, but nonetheless culpable British troops and by the fantasies, which drove this war in the first place, the idea that we were going to suddenly create democracy in the Middle East. One of the things I have been studying for my new book on the Middle East, which comes out this year, is what happened when the rebellion first occurred in 1920, the time of which Lawrence of Arabia was talking, against the British military in Iraq. And exactly the same pattern took place. The Sunni Muslims became disenfranchised. The British laid siege to Fallujah, they laid siege to Najaf. The prime minister, in this case Lloyd George rather than Tony Blair, said if we believe there will be civil war and British military intelligence in Baghdad claimed that the terrorists were arriving–in 1920 this is–from Syria. Same old sorry. So I am afraid that even if you look at the pattern of history, there is no hope. If you look at the pattern today there is no hope. We come back to the equation, which I think I have set out on your program before, that the Americans must leave, and the Americans will leave, and the Americans can’t leave.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move, Robert Fisk, from Iraq to the situation in the occupied territories, to Mahmoud Abbas, to the death of Yasser Arafat, your thoughts at the end of this year, at the beginning of 2005.

ROBERT FISK: You know, I thought it was somehow perverse that the death of the one Palestinian leader, corrupt, venal, and ruthless though he was, I’m talking about why Arafat is immoral, the death of the one Palestinian leader, who could more or less unify the Palestinians, was seen as a hopeful sign, shows just how far from reality we are. Mahmoud Abbas, for the second time in three years is being held out as the angel who can save Palestine, who can bring about peace, who will be our new beloved savior of the Middle East peace, courtesy Tony Blair. And I’m sure he will be generous enough to include George Bush in the Middle East. Mahmoud Abbas is a colorless man who has been never associated with real democratic principles. He was one of the authors of the utterly doomed and hopeless Oslo accord, in whose 1,000 pages the single word occupation, which is what this colonial war is all about, does not occur once. Indeed, even withdrawal–withdrawing of the Israeli troops–doesn’t occur in this document. It always refers to redeployment. This is the man, whom now, we are supposed to believe, is going to bring the violent men to heal, is going to make a real peace, is going to be a beloved of the west, which of course is an essential element for any Middle East peace, and it going to be a problem. It is a further extension of our self-delusion, our British self-delusion, American self-delusion, Israeli self-delusion, to think this can be the case. This is another of our men, like Hamid Karzai and Iyad Allawi, another of the people, who we effectively are stepping up to a subject people or an occupied people, and one who inevitably and ultimately, will not be able to deliver the goods and we’ll cast around for more people to appoint or choose to someone else’s political leadership. To see, Mahmoud Abbas, who only a few months ago, when he resigned, was being cursed privately by Bush as the man he wished he had never met, now blessed the future Palestinian leader, when he was — as I say, one of the author of the whole vain Oslo agreement, which collapsed. It’s a tragedy on our part that we actually believe that this sort of person, as pleasant and plausible though is he, can actually save the day for peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk, who has been voted the best foreign correspondent by newspaper editors and reporters in Britain for many years. He is a long-time correspondent for the Independent, based in Beirut for over three decades. Where are you speaking from to us now?

ROBERT FISK: From Beirut during a wonderful winder thunderstorm, that actually looks like Christmas. But I’m going to Iraq in a weeks time possibly less, to enjoy obviously a much less peaceable environment.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see happening with this election? On U.S. television, we repeatedly hear the story that the suicide bombings will increase, U.S. officials saying this as well that the violence will increase, because militants want to stop democracy in the elections.

ROBERT FISK: Sure. I mean, you have got to realize that this is now a constant sort of logo of American and British news-speak in Iraq. They announce that something wonderful is going to happen, an interim governments a new constitution, elections. And then they say that violence is going to increase, that things are going to get worse the nearer we get to it. In other words the better things to come, the worse things are. The worse things are, the better things are going to become. This is part of the self-delusional policy with which we tried to hide our total failure in Iraq, our total failure even to control the country and allow the citizens of that country to live in safety and security. We don’t even give the casualty figures. We don’t know, we don’t care about them. Even if the elections take place as I say, which I doubt, still doubt, they will be so hopelessly flawed by the absence of the Sunni population, so accompanied by terror on the part of the U.S. administration, that the Shiites might wipe the floor and set up an Islamic republic, even worse than democracy would be an Islamic republic in Iraq. I don’t think they will solve anything. Ultimately, I think what we are going to see, as we have seen in all Middle East wars of occupation, is the opening of some kind of contact between the Americans and the insurgents. This is what the French did after years of saying they would never talk to terrorists, they talked to the FLN. After years of saying they would never talk to terrorists, the British talked to the IRA. After years of saying they would never talk to terrorists, the British talked to the militants fighting them in Aden and to EOKA in Cyprus, and indeed, to both militant sides in Palestine that they tried to escape from what Churchill called a hell disaster in 1948. The Americans will soon, if they have not already, establish contact with the insurgents, and that will mean the beginning of end. It means that the project is over. That they have accepted, as I think, you know, they have already in terms of soldiers on the ground. If you are going to talk to the colonels, and they may — the majors and the generals in Iraq, they know that the game is up. But the generals back at the Pentagon and the Centcom and down there in old Florida and the gentleman in the State Department and at the White House, they don’t accept this because this is a screen of self-delusion between them and the reality on the ground. But it’s over in Iraq. It’s finished. What we’re going to see this year is the beginning of the endgame, which is how do we get Americans out without losing face and ultimately–I should say faith as well–and ultimately, how do you start negotiation with the insurgents. I mean, that doesn’t mean that some American colonel is going to sit down with Zarqawi, though I wouldn’t put it past the realm of possibility. It means that we’re going to have in effect an understanding between the insurgents and the United States forces that the project has failed, that at some point the powers behind the insurgency or the resistance or the terrorists or whatever you would like to call them, will move into place to control the country and they probably will. In the meantime, I fear the Western powers will go on trying to promote the idea of civil war as an alternative to their occupation and oppression and I hope very much that that won’t work. As I said to you before, Iraq has never had a civil war. Iraqis don’t want a civil war. The only people who fear or talk about civil war are the Americans and British.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, you write in your latest piece, “A Mire of Death, Lies and Atrocities, the Ghost of Vietnam,” of an American soldier, of Jimmy Massey, a soldier who came back home and said he didn’t want to continue to participate in the killing, in the slaughter. Can you talk about him, and as you see him from the other side of the ocean?

ROBERT FISK: Well, the odd thing is, I think we’re talking about the soldier who turned up to give evidence in Canada, aren’t we?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. Jimmy Massey.

ROBERT FISK: Yes, you can tell me whether his evidence gained any publicity in the mainstream American press or not. It happened by chance that I was in Toronto when that case came up, and of course, I immediately — you know I had just had come from Iraq and was due to come back to the Middle East, and of course my eyes went straight on and I read through his accounts and I thought, my goodness me, here we go again. In evidence in a court in a not very powerful country, Canada, up comes again the reality of Iraq. Had it not been for my reading it, it wouldn’t have appeared in the British press. Did it occur, did you read anything about Mr. Massey’s evidence in the American press, perhaps you did.

AMY GOODMAN: Well of course we did a long interview with Jimmy Massey when he came back …

ROBERT FISK: I didn’t mean on your radio station, I mean the mainstream media.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, right, right. But I wanted to encourage people to go to our website,, and also in our year-end review of last Thursday, we included his descriptions, but in terms of the larger audience, both in terms of what we have heard about what’s happening with Jeremy Hinsman and other U.S. soldiers who have fled to Canada asking for political asylum there, and Jimmy Massey going up and testifying on their behalf there is very little written about it in this country.

ROBERT FISK: Yeah, of course, yeah. This is part of the self-delusion, not only do our leaders suffer from this mania of deluding themselves, but the press by their silence or by their complicity, assist in this process of self-delusion. Indeed, they self-delude themselves. In Britain, we have, you know, some newspapers, my own, The Independent, The Guardian and increasingly, I suspect The Daily Telegraph, which is no longer prepared to do this. They say, hold on a second, we have got to live on Planet Earth. But when I read The New York Times and the Washington Post, I frankly wonder, who is on Planet Earth. The real problem is–and this was the case of course in Vietnam in the beginning–I am not making these comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. It’s interesting that the Left wants to make the comparison between Vietnam and Iraq and the Right wants to make the comparison between World War II and Iraq, where of course we are playing the role of Churchill, Roosevelt, Tito, you name it, not I noticed Stalin. But the real problem is that, when you go to–I have said this to you before, when I’m in Baghdad, and I read the American press or I turn on the television and watch CNN, what I’m reading and what I am seeing bears absolutely no physical, moral, political, or military relationship to the place that I’m living in. When I come out, I’m sane enough to realize for quite a long time that that remains the case. We are not–look, let me give you the most basic example of the problem. In Baghdad now, we have got one or two exceptions and I hope The Independent is one of them, though even we are very circumscribed, journalists do not move from their hotel rooms and from their hotels. They’re in hotel prisons. Now, I don’t object to my colleagues doing this, if they want to, because after all, we all want to preserve our lives. Nobody wants to turn up on a video and have themselves seen around the world having their throats cut or having their throats cut without being on video tape, but they don’t tell their readers and their viewers that this is the case. They still appear on television as the courageous war correspondent in war-torn Baghdad or war-torn Iraq with information, which in fact only comes from the occupational authorities or from the government, which was apoirnted by the occupational authorities, but which by not saying that they cannot witness and see what is actually going on, they give the impression it is the product of independent reporting. We are as usual in these circumstances, we journalists, complicit in the self-delusion, which allows my country’s people, Britons, and Americans, to believe that things are much better, that things are okay, when in fact they’re not okay at all. You know, it’s difficult to see how you turn this corner, and I can see why journalists do not want to admit that they’re too frightened to travel, though they should. I sometimes say in my report, I didn’t go to this place, I thought it was too dangerous to go to. Other times I manage to travel, 70, 80 miles outside Baghdad. And it’s getting worse all the time. But at least let us tell our readers and our viewers that we cannot move. But the journalists don’t do this, and of course neither does Mr. Allawi, who cannot even move around Baghdad. Neither does Mr. Rumsfeld, who for a long time wouldn’t venture into Iraq. So, an illusion is created of calm and progress and well, things may get more violent, but that’s because things are getting better, which is the most ludicrous topsy turvy I ever heard. So, the weeks tick by and we continuing to be surprised by the bombings and killings and the executions. We have days now. When 20 Iraqis are lined up because they’re accused of collaboration for joining the Iraqi police or the Iraqi army and executed. Incredible and we just accept it.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you for being with us. Robert Fisk, in Lebanon now, headed back to Iraq. We will continue to talk to him there. Robert Fisk, a Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London.

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